Clay Shirky Is Kind of Annoying. He Is Also Right.


The Weekly Standard's Jonathan Last finds Internet guru and technology triumphalist Clay Shirky annoying. Last objects to Shirky's black suits, aphoristic style, and devoted following. Fair enough: Bright-eyed evangelists and fiery-eyed revolutionaries are everywhere and always annoying, and NYU "interactive telecommunications" prof Shirky certainly deserves to be counted among their number. But Last—a member of the Weekly Standard We Aren't So Sure About This Whole Internet Thing Men's Chorus—also thinks Shirky is just plain wrong.

Here's Last summarizing of Shirky's key argument:

Shirky's thinking runs like this: Two billion people are now online. Right now most of those people spend their free time watching television. As television watching (which is bad) is replaced by Internet surfing (which is good) people will combine to create worthwhile virtual projects that become civic capital. Shirky's Exhibit A is Wikipedia, the estimable online encyclopedia created and maintained by an army of volunteers. Shirky estimates that, to date, Wikipedia has consumed 100 million man-hours of work. By contrast, Americans watch 200 billion hours of television a year. As those hours shift to the Internet, people will band together into working groups and create worthwhile endeavors out of this "cognitive surplus."

When Last uses the word surfing, he gives away the game. (I should note here that Last is a smart guy, a Grade-A geek of the best kind, and a friend of mine. On this matter, I think he's wrong. But he's not at all annoying.) Using the word surfing is like using the word cyber—it implies a mental picture of the Internet that is slightly out of date.

Shirky's entire point is that the Internet isn't about passive consumption anymore. For even the schmoest Joe, it's about producing stuff and participating in mass production. Last is quite right to point out that most of the stuff produced is crap—tweets, Facebook updates, or YouTube rants. But he's wrong to worry that mass participation in self-selected Internet endeavors will wind up "lowering the standard of middlebrow discourse" and that the results will be dire for both individuals and society as a whole. For starters, middlebrow discourse was none too impressive to begin with, as Last himself notes when he condemns Shirky by suggesting his book is fit primarily for middle managers.

But even this degraded discourse is an improvement than the non-discourse of television or oldstyle mindless clicky "surfing." One doesn't have to be militantly anti-television to think that everyone is better off, individually and collectively, if some of those television hours were devoted to actually doing something—even if that something is adding to the already-maxed out corpus of Harry Potter fan fiction—and interacting with real, live humans.

Here's me, succumbing to Shirky's wiles, back in 2008.